GAMING GREATS #3: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

Who made it?: Shinobu Hayashi (Programming), Ayano Koshiro, Takefuni Yunoue (Designers), Ancient (Developer), Sega (Publisher).

Genre: Platformer.

Platforms: Sega Master System (8-bit), Mega Drive/Genesis (16-bit), Game Gear, Wii Virtual Console.

Format: Cartridge.

Release date: 25th October 1991 (UK).


When asked what my favourite retro video game is, I’d have to go with the first platformer I ever picked up. I remember it clear as day. For all intents and purposes, I was a Sega kid, and this game was the first I ever played that wasn’t on a cassette tape and didn’t take half an hour to load. From there, I would pledge my allegiance to Sega, until they screwed up with the Saturn, which, unfortunately, was one of the many factors that brought down the popularity of the Dreamcast (a superior console in every regard).

That game was Sonic the Hedgehog in full 8-bit glory. When I first borrowed my neighbour’s Sega Master System II, with the game built-in, I was hooked. In retrospect, this iteration of the title was just as great as its more famous 16-bit counterpart.

For readers who have been living on Mars with their fingers in their ears for the past 20 years, the main aim of Sonic the Hedgehog is to get from one end of the level to the other in the fastest time possible. This is made more difficult by the need to collect yellow rings and enemies that block your path (called “badnicks” – Sonic’s friends that have been turned into robots by the series antagonist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik).

Each level or stage consists of 3 “acts,” and at the end of Act 3 you’ll face Dr. Robotnik in one of his many death machines, which he’ll try to kill you in. Hit him enough times to move on to the next level/stage, until you beat the game. Simple. Or is it? As with the best titles, it all depends on your skill level.

The development of Sonic the Hedgehog started in 1990 when Sega decided to replace their old mascot, Alex Kidd, who had some great games to his name, but slowly descended into mediocrity and disappeared from the production slate completely in only 5 years. Ironically, it was originally the character of Dr. Ivo Robotnik that was going to be our hero, replacement and mascot in the game, but was soon taken over by a blue spikey creature that barely resembled the animal it was supposed to be.

It was also to be released on Sega’s brand new 16-bit console, brandishing a whole new array of colours and sounds never seen before on a CRT Television.

The game was about speed. Not only that, but balancing your speed with platforming death traps. Something not seen in the PAL version, where Sonic was a whopping 83% slower (including the music score). This would later be corrected some 11 years later for the Sonic Mega Collection (released for the Gamecube, PS2 and the Wii’s Virtual Console). The NTSC version remained faster, more challenging and is generally considered a purer version of the game.

At the same time Sega were trying to elongate the lifespan of the Master System, as it was doing well in Japan and Europe, and in 1990 the more compact Master System II was released. Losing its ‘Sega Card’ compatibility and keeping the more sturdy and reliable ROM cartridges, it arrived with built-in games such as Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and later in 1991, the port for Sonic the Hedgehog.

While the obvious difference is the simplified levels, graphics and colours, Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System used the consoles abilities to their fullest. This, in my opinion, becomes apparent if compared to Sonic’s rival – Mario (right).

It had a few graphical flaws, but all around a good, solid game for an 8-bit machine. Edges look crisp, colours are vibrant, and everything is very well-defined.

The music is memorable and catchy like a lot of 8-bit classics, and to be honest, a lot of the music used in this is superior to the 16-bit version, especially ones that were not a direct translation of the 16-bit ditties. For example, check-out the “Labyrinth Zone” music and compare it to the Mega Drive/Genesis translation:

If you’re still unsure, let’s put them on an equal footing with a 16-bit re-mix of the 8-bit track.

All arguments are invalid.

Another thing about the Master System release was that while the physics were better, the loop-de-loops were non-existent and there were plentiful ways of completing a 16-bit Sonic level. This game has some really awesome, unique levels and moments not available in the previous release; two of my favourites include the “Bridge Zone,” which concentrated on timing your jumps and being launched into the air, which made the constant side-scrolling in Act 2 – where you had to be spot-on or face certain death – frustrating at times. The music was catchy as hell once again and rivalled the Genesis copy.

The other level I thoroughly enjoyed was the “Jungle Zone,” which took you really high up a waterfall, and if you made one little fuck-up and died, you had to start the whole act again (minus 1 checkpoint). Hardcore. Again, the 8-bit music really does the Master System justice.

The game also made more sense to me. First of all, the Chaos Emeralds were hidden in the level, providing more of a challenge to get the Emeralds without dying and pass the act in a reasonable amount of time. Special stages were there, of course, and as a bonus they were less seizure-worthy and more fun than the Mega Drive edition. The reward was finding “continues,” which always came in handy.

The only disappointing thing, which was fixed in the sequel (that came out before the official sequel), is that when Sonic loses his rings, he loses his rings, and that was that! No scrambling to collect…nada. The third act also contained NO rings whatsoever, so each boss had to be completed without getting hit ONCE.  However, it could be argued that this made the game more challenging and more for the true gamer who strives to be the best.

The most horrid part of the 8-bit Sonic is the fact that an extra life is not gained if you get 100 rings. Instead the counter resets to 00.

All in all, Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System was a great game that, in some ways, rivalled and surpassed its original 16-bit incarnation, and would be improved throughout its two sequels – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic Chaos, which are reviews for another day!

Graphics: A few glitches and simplicities here and there, and the waterfalls in Jungle Zone can strain the eyes. This doesn’t stop it being a visually appealing game for what it is, with plenty of colours and well-defined images.

Sound: An amazing job was done translating old tunes from the Mega Drive and making new ones up. While some sound effects are basic they still don’t disappoint.

Gameplay:  While a lot of bosses are easy and predictable, some will catch you off-guard. No loop-de-loops and other wonders, also resetting your ring count and not getting an extra life past 99 rings is a cheap move. Still the new unique levels and the re-design of familiar ones are a welcome addition.


About Andrew Cooper

Andrew is a screenwriter an freelance journalist. His favourite films range from 'Citizen Kane' all the way to 'Jaws: The Revenge' depending on mood and alcohol consumption. He is a great fan of the video game industry with a wide range of favourites. He also moonlights a s a ninja for hire.
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1 Response to GAMING GREATS #3: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

  1. greenyxi says:

    An excellent review. Looking forward to seeing more from you.

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